It’s 2017, and everyone has been talking about the five-hundredth anniversary of that event in 1517 when Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. But I thought we could talk about another anniversary year; let’s talk about the one-hundredth anniversary. Let’s go back to 1917 and see what was happening then.
It was a year in which the world was at war. It had been at war since 1914. The United States had not yet entered the war as 1917 came around. Woodrow Wilson was elected president for a second time in 1916, and in March 1917 he delivered his second inaugural address. In that address, he said: “We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.” A month later, the United States entered World War I.
That year was also the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Russian word Bolshevik means “majority.” It referred to the Russian Social Democratic Party, which would later be renamed the Communist Party. In 1917, popular unrest led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, stepped in at this point and overthrew the government. During the course of World War I, eleven million Russian peasants were sent to war, and that, perhaps more than anything, fueled the rise of the Bolsheviks and the fall of the imperial government.
We know the implications of both of those events on culture in the twentieth century. As we have been told many times, ideas have consequences. Events also have consequences, and the events of 1917 left their mark on the twentieth century.
If we turn to theology and to the church, it was also a fascinating year. In 1917, Karl Barth was about to launch into writing his monumental commentary on Romans; it would be published in 1919. Barth’s shadow would loom large over the twentieth century and have a significant impact on the church in Europe and also especially on the church in America. In 1917, Walter Rauschenbusch published his Theology for the Social Gospel. He was the father of the social gospel movement. This year also saw the publication of the revised edition of the Scofield Reference Bible or the Scofield Study Bible as it was called at that point. The first edition was published by C.I. Scofield and Oxford University Press in 1909. That Bible and its notes would have a huge impact in the twentieth century.
Also in 1917, Ernest Hemmingway became an ambulance driver in the war. And J. Gresham Machen left the pleasant tree-lined streets of Princeton, N.J., and the ivy-covered buildings of Princeton Seminary to serve in the Red Cross for the U.S. forces in World War I. That was an event that would have a significant impact on Machen, who later made his own impact on American theology and the American church over the next two decades.
So, we look back on 1917 and we see those events as significant events that cast their shadow over the twentieth century. What will be the consequences of what we do in 2017 and the events of 2017, and what shadow will they cast over the twenty-first century?